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Knowledge is power? Think again.

In the most recent issue of the Review, Kathryne M. Young and Katie R. Billings reported on their study of people’s willingness to assert rights in a variety of encounters with police, including interrogations, home searches, and car searches.  They found that not only is knowledge of constitutional rights unrelated to rights assertion,[1] but patterns of police-citizen interactions are related to social class.  People from modest backgrounds were likely to approach police stops with more willingness to help the police and more skepticism that police would heed their rights assertions.  People from upper-middle-class backgrounds, on the other hand, brought a greater sense of entitlement and self-directedness to these interactions, making them more likely to assert their rights. Their findings contravene the U.S. Supreme Court’s long-held assumption that informing people about a constitutional right means they will be empowered to assert that right.  Not so —hidden social processes actually render people with lower socioeconomic status more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution than their well-off counterparts. 

The authors root their work in studies of legal consciousness—how people experience, think about, and use the law.  They demonstrate that using cultural capital as a lens to understand how legal consciousness works reveals social processes through which the law produces, perpetuates, and reifies inequality.  Just as social class and cultural capital shape people’s interactions with education[2] and medicine,[3] they shape people’s interactions with law, which has important implications for access to civil and criminal justice.

[1] Young, Kathryne M. and Christin L. Munsch. 2014. “Fact and Fiction in Constitutional Criminal Procedure.” South Carolina Law Review 66: 445–90.
[2] Calarco, Jessica McCrory, 2018, Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. New York: Oxford University Press; Jack, Anthony Abraham, 2016, “(No) Harm in Asking: Class, Acquired Cultural Capital, and Academic Engagement at an Elite University,” 89 Sociology of Education 1–19.
[3] Lareau, Annette, 2011, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; Dubbin, Leslie A., Jamie Suki Chang, and Janet K. Shim, 2013, “Cultural Health Capital and the Interactional Dynamics of Patient-Centered Care,” 93 Social Science & Medicine 113­–20.

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